Weekend Reading

As I prepare to hunker down in the path of both my first hurricane and my first Nor’easter, you can enjoy some reading:

Leslie finds that, now that she’s been elected, her job requires literally dealing with the shit of fellow-politicians. When she tries to increase the hours at a public pool, a councilman blackmails her for access to her private bathroom; she has to eat “racist salad” with a Dixiecrat to find an ally. This is a network sitcom: no matter how corrupt things get, Leslie is unlikely to lose her soul (we wouldn’t want her to). But, for all its warmth, “Parks” suggests the brutality of politics better than many dramas. “Hey, kids, would you like to learn how Leslie got your bill passed?” her enemy sneers, threatening to disillusion the kids she hopes to inspire. “Councilman Knope traded my vote for her—” Before he can finish, he gets pushed into that swimming pool, with a tremendous splash. Lobby all you want for change in Washington; maybe what we really need is a dunk tank.

What you don’t see — and only hear speak of briefly, as if in passing — are the millions of workers who had something or other to do with these Great Men and their construction of industrial America. These workers are milling about in History’s 19th century somewhere, but it’s not too clear where, why, or how. As far as The Men Who Built America is concerned, the men and women who did the actual building don’t matter. I guess mangled limbs and Pinkerton clubs don’t make for good TV? (They so do!)

The show’s complete disregard for the actual men who built America makes sense, though, when you think about life in the Second Gilded Age. We don’t have Robber Barons of the First anymore, but we’ve got Job Creators (and even some Wealth Creators). We’ve got about as much inequality. Lord knows our unions are similarly reviled by capital. Last but not least, who could ignore the parallels between that era’s environmental catastrophes and the looming armageddon of our own?

That could soon be the law of the land in Pennsylvania, where the state legislature has passed a bill that would, asPhiladelphia City Paper blogger Daniel Denvir describes it, “allow companies that hire at least 250 new workers in the state to keep 95-percent of the workers’ withheld income tax.” These workers will essentially be paying their employers for the privilege of having a job. Some have called this “corporate socialism,” but it also calls to mind an even older economic model that was once popular in Europe – except back then, the bosses were called lords. It’s a more modern innovation in the U.S., but combined with increased political pressure from employers and a crackdown on workers’ rights, it all adds up to feudalism, American-style.

The Pennsylvania bill is just the most recent example of state income taxes being turned into employer subsidies. It’s already the law of the land in one form or another in 19 states, and according to Good Jobs First, it’s taking $684 million a year out of the public coffers. The theory is that this will boost job creation. But the authors of the Good Jobs First report note, “payments often go to firms that simply move existing jobs from one state to another, or to ones that threaten to move unless they get paid to stay put.” In other words, it’s more like extortion than stimulus.

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